Friends for life: Krishen Khanna (Source: Express Archives)
It feels like I have known Akbar forever. We shared a very close friendship. Gradually, all my friends are gone — Husain, Bal Chhabda, (VS) Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Raza. I am the last one. Akbar was large-hearted and had a fantastic sense of humour. We last met in Mumbai about three years ago, when one of my works was being exhibited. Earlier, he had stayed with us in Delhi and Shimla. When I travelled to Paris in 1962, he showed me around, and he came to New York when I was on a Rockefeller scholarship in the US. I recommended him later for it.
Not everyone knows that he was a terrific teacher. While teaching at the Stout State University in Wisconsin in the late ’60s, he got his students to work on large murals. He had devised a system of teaching them about colours and I still have the pamphlet in which he explained the spectrum to them. He wanted to teach at the JJ School of Art, too, but was told there was no room. He would take classes in the grounds, under trees. The students loved him, but there were people who did not want him there because he had denounced the kind of teaching that was being done. But he remained a teacher in other ways. Wherever he saw talent, he fertilised it.
It is not a great feat to remember the work of people you regard and love. I have enjoyed all of his work.
We often exhibited together. When Bal Chhabda opened Gallery 59 in 1959, several of us showed at the inaugural exhibition. In 1960, Bal organised a solo of Akbar’s grey paintings. I was working at Grindlays Bank and was posted in Kanpur. I remember receiving an invitation.
As I was looking at the cover image, I commented to Renu, my wife, that there was this artist in Mumbai making terrific work of whom we knew nothing. When I turned the card and saw Akbar’s name, I thought to myself, ‘He has done it again.’ All of the black-and white pictures were tremendous. I called Bal and asked if Greek Landscape was available. He said the painting cost Rs 3,000 but I could have it for Rs 1,000, as he would forego his commission, which was Rs 1,000, and also owed me Rs 1,000 for a drawing of mine that he had sold.
Some years later, Akbar wrote to me that Lalit Kala Akademi was sending an exhibition abroad and if I could loan them the painting. I agreed. When it came back, I was told it was damaged. The insurance company was willing to pay Rs 10,000 but I was not anxious to leave my painting. When I saw it, it did not seem destroyed. It had been packed rather badly. I took the painting and half of the insurance amount. When I told Akbar I made money on his painting, he complained that it wasn’t fair. We left it to Bal to decide what to do. Finally, it was decided that Rs 1,000 would go to Bal, because he never took his commission. Akbar got Rs 1,000 and I kept the remaining Rs 3,000; so everyone was happy. In 2016, I auctioned it through Saffronart. However, I got a digital reproduction done. I still look at it every day. I also have another etching by Akbar . He had exhibited it in Paris, and, later in Delhi. My father had bought it.
He was an incredible human being and was painting till the very end. How many artists can go like that?
(As told to Vandana Kalra)